Overcoming Communication Barriers

There are many reasons for communication failure. What is said may not be received exactly the way the sender intended. Different business cultures view directness, harmony, saving face, and confrontation in different ways. How do these differences affect communication, and how do you overcome the obstacles?

Hi, I’m Zacharias Beckman, president of Hyrax International, and I want to talk briefly about overcoming communication barriers. It’s important to understand that throughout the business world English is usually a second, third or fourth language for people — even though it is a commonly used business dialect.

Fluency takes years and includes slang and idioms and local references. For example, in the U.S. you might hear, “If this doesn’t work we’re sunk” or “that’s a home run,” which is a baseball reference of course. In India someone might say, “you are gone,” to mean that their position isn’t very positive. And, I’ve had people stand up and storm out of a room saying “that’s it, I quit,” but it’s sarcasm and I know they just mean they need a break.

In an international setting it’s best to avoid sarcasm and slang, and even jokes. Instead slow the conversation down. Give your partner time to digest what has been said, so that they can understand it and ask questions if they need to.

Also, be very aware of body language. It’s very easy to misinterpret body language. The Indian head waggle, for instance, many Westerners will assume that it means “yes” because, more or less, it looks like a “yes,” but it isn’t. It definitely doesn’t mean “yes.” Instead, ask questions when you see something you don’t understand and look for multiple confirmations, so that you know that the message is properly understood.

Our number one tip for the Westerners — don’t assume that agreement means agreement. Many cultures are very much oriented on preserving harmony and preserving face, so they won’t be confrontational. They won’t directly say “no” and they won’t be terribly critical. And for Easterners, our tip is: When your Western partner seems to be overly confrontational and critical, don’t immediately assume they mean offense. They may not. Perhaps they’re being open, honest and direct.

How To Negotiate Across Cultures

Understanding how to negotiate in any business setting, around the world, is a fantastic skill. It takes a depth of perception about the people you are working with as well as the business culture you are immersed in.

Communication is the most obvious global communication gap. It’s the first thing we usually encounter, one aspect of personal interaction that poses a clear barrier. Throughout the world, different cultures take a very different approach to negotiations — and a lot of it comes down to how they communicate. British linguist Richard D. Lewis, whose book “When Cultures Collide,” charts these different styles. Lewis himself is an accomplished linguist and speaks 10 languages.

How To Negotiate Culturally

Communication Patterns (Richard Lewis)
Communication Patterns (Richard Lewis)

His diagrams provide a visual model of how people from different cultures negotiate in meetings and other business dealings. The inset chart includes a number of his cultural models, where potential obstacles are grey, wide shapes imply greater conversational range, and annotations offer other hints and clues to negotiation style.

So, for example, Americans are notoriously straightforward, direct, and even confrontational. They tackle problems head on, launching into negotiations immediate (before building a strong relationship). In contrast, nearly all Asian cultures are much less direct. Meetings tend to be focused more on building relationships and gathering information, especially with Japanese and Chinese cultures. Indian culture, on the other hand, tends to engage in long, verbose, sociable dialogue but eventually leads to fierce negotiation and elaborate postulating, ultimately seeking a mutually agreeable compromise. Of Indian culture, Lewis writes, “Determination of price must come last, after all the benefits of the purchase or deal have been elaborated. Indians use all their communicative skills to get to the price indirectly.”

Lewis’ diagrams on cross cultural communication style and negotiation are an invaluable aid to the multinational manager. They serve to remind us that different cultures approach negotiation differently. Each has unique expectations. Where one culture may push quickly for closure, another may want to create a deep, long-term relationship. Understanding what your partner expects is key to success.

The Five Business Cultural Practices

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that communication style is but one of many cultural preferences. Knowing how your partner will communicate is like having one number for a five combination lock.

The unexperienced think immediately of language and communication skill as the essential core of International negotiations. But there are many more dimensions that deeply influence business practices — not just what language we speak, or how we communicate. For example, every cultureperceives time differently. Some cultures prize time highly, running business activities to a tight schedule. Others feel less driven by the agenda, instead taking time to get to know each other, valuing carefully thought out actions and relationships as more important than “meeting the schedule.”

I’ve periodically posted videos on other cultural preferences, too, including power distance and individualism. Developing a deep awareness of each one is absolutely necessary to truly understand and be successful in Global business.

Who Is My Outsourced Team’s Decision Maker?

When it comes to decision making, it’s important to know who is the decision maker at your overseas partner or vendor (and it might not be who you expect)! Business culture around the world varies a lot. It’s very likely you will experience misunderstandings when Western and Eastern firms work together. Here are some tips on how to avoid the misunderstandings.

I’m Zac Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about who it is at your partner firm, overseas, that actually makes decisions. You might be quite surprised to find out who can and who cannot make decisions. For example, let’s say you’re Asian, Chinese or Indian, and you’re working with a European firm. You might be completely shocked when a subordinate seems to go out on his own, make a decision, and act on it. That’s because many cultures expect decisions to be made at the top and then directed down to the subordinates.

Subordinates are expected to inform their superiors. Their superiors will take this information and weigh it, and then make a decision and convey that decision to the subordinate. So this can cause problems when Western and Eastern firms work together.

Westerners thinks that anyone is empowered to make a decision. They’ll have a conversation with an Eastern partner, and they’ll hear agreement to a particular recommendation or decision; it comes across that the decision has been made. But it hasn’t. All that’s happened is, the Eastern partner whom they are talking to has expressed agreement to the decision. They have expressed the idea that this would be an agreeable decision. But that doesn’t mean its within their power to make it happen. It’s up to the Western boss to communicate to the Eastern, boss at the same level, to make sure that decisions happen. This will not happen by itself.

Here is an example: We had a client who had engaged a firm in India. And they wanted to go visit this firm in India. Get to know them better, which is a great idea. The CEO hopped on a plane, but when he got to India, nobody was there to meet him. The President of the firm that he wanted to visit wasn’t even in the office! The entire trip had not been coordinated, it had not been communicated up the chain properly because the CEO who was coordinating this trip should have been talking to the CEO on the other side.

We have to make sure that the decisions are made at the right level and those decisions need to be communicated multiple times, back and forth. And you have to look for more than just agreement. You have to look for confirmation that the decision is being acted upon.

How Do I Communicate With My Overseas Team?

When it comes to delegating work, how can you communicate tasks to your overseas team, and know those tasks will be handled reliably? Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you might think.

Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you would think. Yes, sure, it’s fine to pick up the phone and send an email — and actually you should do that a lot. It’s extremely valuable to build those strong relationships and to maintain a lot of communication with your overseas partner. But, its easy to make mistakes when you assume that they are going to be communicating with you in exactly the same way.

Assumptions And How We Communicate

So, for example, we have had clients that would pick up a phone and call their Chinese or their Indian partner to brainstorm about ideas. But, because of misunderstandings between the two parties and between power distance and saving face, the partner over in China, or in India, might take that brainstorming session to be a directive to get to work on something. And so they throw everything else out and the schedule goes out with it — and they start working on something new. And month’s later, you’re surprised — what the heck happened? Why are they working on that? We were just talking about a fun idea we had.

Communicate Assignments Without Misunderstandings

So, how do you avoid misunderstandings like that? Well, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you have a procedure or a system in place to manage tasks, and assignments, and responsibilities between your teams. There are a number of systems that we’ve used with our clients. Some of them are pretty simple. Basecamp is very popular. We actually don’t recommend Basecamp. It’s not too hard to get lost in Basecamp and much like sending a phone message or an email, people can start pointing fingers, saying, “Oh, I thought you had that task,” “No I had that task.” Also, base camp doesn’t have a great audit trail. Instead we tend to recommend more advanced systems that provide better audit trails, better assignment tracking, and permission and workflow systems.

Salesforce, if you are in a sales organization, actually does a great job of assigning tasks to different people, keeping track of records, who made a call, who didn’t, where is that customer support ticket. If you’re in a more technical discipline, then tools like Rally and Atlassian’s JIRA products are excellent project management tools. They can also be used for customer service management, ticket management or even call tracking because they are very customizable. Especially JIRA which has a very powerful workflow management system that you can customize to do whatever you want. But the best thing with all of these tools — Salesforce, Rally, JIRA and host of other ones — they work over the world wide web, they work on mobile phones, and they all have excellent audit trails, so you can see what has happened, who was assigned the task, and why did they give it to somebody else… And they also make it very easy to expose all of this information to anybody that wants to see it.

So, our number one recommendation, when we are talking about how do you get a hold of your team whose overseas, you can get a hold of them on the phone and with email. But you shouldn’t use those methods to communicate tasks or assignments or new requirements. Those things, if its official, it needs to go into a system. And everybody needs to understand that the system is what dictates who is working on what. That way when your team in China receives a call from the CEO saying, “Hey, what about this great idea?” — well, they’ll understand that if it wasn’t assigned to them in the system, they’re not supposed to start working on it.

What Is Low Context Communication?

Many Western cultures are very low context, focusing chiefly on words to deliver a message. So, if so much attention is given to what is spoken (or written), why are there so many misunderstandings between Western and Eastern teams? As it turns out, to someone from a high context culture, there’s a lot more to a message than just words.

Low context communication uses chiefly words to get a message across. There was this great study done in which Canadian students and Chinese students were asked to go into a room, and negotiate a business topic, and their negotiation was observed by researchers. They found that there were huge misunderstandings between [the students].

Low / High Context Misunderstandings

For example, [the researchers] might talk to the Canadian, and the Canadian would say, “Oh, everything went great, I’m sure we’re going to be in business together.” Then, they’d go talk to the Chinese student, and they would find out that this person would never do business with the other person.

It turns out that these low context / high context communications were completely missing the mark. The Canadian would see the Chinese student, perhaps, lean back a little bit in their chair, take a very relaxed pose, or cross their arms a little bit, or establish some long eye contact. Well, the Canadian thought of that as being relaxed, and interested — and paying attention. Unfortunately, in Chinese high context cultures those are all indicators of hostility and rejection.

Low Context Communication: Chiefly Words

Westerners, especially Americans, are very low context. But there are also a number of European countries that tend to be low context, the Germans and Swiss, for example. These cultures focus on direct, clear statements. They focus on words, and because of that, they tend to miss a lot of high context cues. They interpret everything that is not a clear “no” as an invitation to just continue the negotiation or talk, which tends to send the message that they’re willing to push their own topic through, no matter what the cost.

This direct communication is usually a source of rejection or insult to a high context culture — whereas, the high context communicator is wondering, “Why isn’t he getting all of these messages I’m sending?” When low context and high context culture comes together, there tend to be a lot of problems that crop up.

What Is High Context Communication?

High context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” In fact, those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that actually mean “no.” But, it’s about saving face, and learning how to communicate across cultures will mean avoiding nasty misunderstandings.

High context communication is about using many cues to send a message, not just words. So timing, when was a message sent, was there a delay, that can be very important. Stories are a way of sending a message without directly criticizing.

The Wrong High Context Message

Here’s a true story: There’s a Texan who went to Thailand to set up a new business venture, and he met his Thai business partner when he arrived. Towards the end of his trip, the Texan was really missing out on important communication cues. It all came to a head in the final day, when he thinks everything is going great and he’s expecting to sign a contract. He slaps the table and he pulls out a couple of cigars, offers one to his Thai host, and he puts his feet up on the table. Well, his Thai host stands up, marches right out of the room, and our Texan never hears from him again.

A number of different things happened there. One, the thing that really put it over the edge, is that putting your feet up on a desk, and showing the soles of your feet to somebody in Thailand is terribly, terribly offensive.

High Context Means “Rich,” “Subtle”

So, high context communication is very subtle. It uses many techniques other than words to send a message. And when words are used, those words are usually pretty subtle too. You might hear, “it’s not a problem,” or “let’s think about it,” or perhaps, “let’s talk about this again later.” Those are usually pretty direct, high context messages that mean “no.”

But, it’s about saving face. Specifically, it’s about saving your face. Your partner isn’t going to tell you that your idea is bad. Instead their going to circuitously say: This isn’t working for us right now; why don’t you take the time to come back, later, with a better answer? When you have an Asian business partner, and they’re telling you a story, it’s probably a good idea to look for the hidden meanings in that story.

This kind of subtle communication is often completely lost on Westernized cultures, meaning the United States, Canada, many European cultures, because those cultures focus on low context communication, which is all about just using words.

East Meets West: How To Avoid Confrontation

Most Western, individualist cultures value direct communication to varying degrees. Coming quickly to the point of a conversation or stating your main argument up front is one way Westerners do this. Avoiding vague statements, and not softening your argument with conciliatory phrases, are others. Criticism is sought out, and value is given to constructive, direct, and critical feedback. Even in personal situations, individuals will openly welcome a differing point of view.

Confrontation in the West

“Beating around the bush” is a phrase dating back to the 15th century or earlier. Boar hunting, in particular, was quite dangerous, so noblemen hired workers to walk through the woods beating branches and making noise. The unarmed workers kept a distance from the dense undergrowth, where boars might be hiding, all the while making enough commotion to scare the animals out from cover. This evasive technique was called “beating around the bush,” and today the phrase lives on. It’s used to describe someone who is avoiding the main point in a conversation or failing to get to the bottom line. In other words, “beating around the bush” is something one does to avoid approaching a subject directly. In the West, it’s not a compliment.

In Western cultures today it’s acceptable to challenge a superior. When given instructions, subordinates are expected to critically consider those instructions. If there are doubts or questions, they should be asked. If a subordinate believes there is a better solution, it should be raised immediately. It’s common to hear, “I don’t think that’s a good idea,” “there’s a better way,” or “that won’t work, instead we should…” In more casual work environments, simply, “that’s a bad idea,” or “no way!” might be the reaction a subordinate offers. Naturally, one’s attitude should be positive and solution-oriented, but as long as the employee’s objective is to make the right decision, it’s appropriate. Western societies won’t view this kind of direct confrontation as disrespectful, provided the goal is to solve a problem. Instead, it’s collaborative and solution seeking — usually with the biggest rewards going to the person that makes the biggest contribution.

This makes perfect sense when considered from the perspective of typically Western, American upbringing. Children are raised to tell the truth and to be direct. They are told that “beating around the bush” is just a way of avoiding the truth — it’s considered a sign of weak character. Truth, speaking plainly what’s on your mind, and being concise are highly valued traits instilled from a very young age.

Confrontation in the East

In Eastern, collectivist cultures, direct confrontation is rare. Confrontation does take place but, from the perspective of a Westerner’s direct, individualist style, it’s so subtle it seems like an inefficient waste of time. Unity within the group is intensely important to collectivist culture, as family and professional groups are tightly forged and will often last a lifetime. As a result, confrontation takes place, but only in a way that will not break with the harmony of the group.

In the workplace this manifests itself in how individuals interact. The direct criticism and challenges found in Western cultures do not exist. Throughout much of Asia, the word “no” is considered unacceptably abrupt and simply won’t be used. (Strictly speaking, some Asian languages don’t have a literal translation for “no,” and instead rely on restating a question or statement with verb inflection to indicate negative or positive agreement).

When it comes to expressing disagreement, phrases such as “perhaps you are right,” “we will think about it,” “we will get back to you,” and “I need to discuss this with my superior” are in fact polite refusals. To a Western ear, these statements all sound like agreement and, more than that, a commitment to continue negotiations.

Likewise, “yes” rarely means outright agreement. Instead, it can mean “I heard you” or “I understand you.” It can just as easily mean, “what you said make sense but I don’t agree with it,” (think of the Indian head waggle, which carries a variety of meanings from “Yes,” “Nice to meet you” and “I completely understand what you just said,” to “Maybe,” “I sympathize,” or “Hell no.”)

When working in a cross cultural situation it’s hard not to fall back on our native interpretations of people’s behavior. To an individualist Westerner, “no” simply means “no,” and anything else tends to indicate agreement or at least permission to continue a negotiation. From an Eastern or collectivist perspective, “no” is unacceptably harsh, so more harmonious, subtle methods are used to convey disagreement.

When these two cultures collide, there are dramatic misunderstandings.

Harmony or Confrontation

For the individualist Westerner, watch out if it seems the first meeting went so well, a deal should be signed in no time. Was there really agreement, or are your Eastern partners merely preserving the harmony of the relationship? Listen more carefully to the timing, and reasons given for delays. If you aren’t actually on the same page, your good feelings will soon be replaced by puzzlement, as your partner starts to “beat around the bush,” and ultimately frustration when no deal is forthcoming.

For the collectivist Easterner, remember that being very direct is a virtue in the West, and no offense is meant in such directness. Your loud, impervious partner from the West will be looking for clear reasons that things are not moving forward, otherwise everything can look like a problem that should be “hammered out” and solved. If working together doesn’t seem to make sense, directly saying so is respected. This avoids wasting everyone’s time, and that will be appreciated. On the other hand, if you extend any suggestion that working together may be possible it’s likely to be taken as an invitation to continue talking, negotiating, and closing in on a deal.

In situations where the lines are less clearly drawn, remember that the subtle, harmonious way an Easterner indicates disagreement can often be construed as deference to a Westerner. It’s best for both parties to be very clear. Making unambiguous statements such as, “I will deliver the report by tomorrow,” or, “I don’t have the information I need to work on this,” leaves little room for misunderstanding.